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  • Foot Exercises for
    Improving Balance and Proprioception of the Feet and Ankles

    The following foot exercises developed in part from the fact that I am semi-flat footed. I have collapsed arches (or at least I used to have.)
    I learned to roll my shins outwards as a way of forming the arches of each foot.
    This helped to "un-flatten" my feet.

    This exercise improved proprioception and control of my feet and ankles to the point I didn't need to wear arch supports.
    I use these exercises regularly as a preparation for standing yoga postures and for yoga balance poses while balancing on one foot.

    Rolling Your Shins Out

    The first part of these foot exercises involves rolling your shins outwards and then inwards. Do this slowly to make it feel good.

    • Stand with your feet about hip width apart (or wider.)
    • Position your feet so that your toes point straight ahead.
    • Have your knees slightly bent and keep them bent. (That being said, you can also do this exercise with knees straight.)
    foot exercises, feet relaxed shins rolled in.foot exercises, feet and ankes active, shins externally rotated

    The rolling outwards part is where you activate your arches or make your flat feet Non-Flat.

    The rolling inwards parts is where you relax your feet.

    By "rolling your shins outwards and then inwards" as opposed to just holding your shins rolled outwards makes it easier to feel when your feet are active and when they are not.

    Also, on some occasions it may be helpful to allow your arches to collapse. Just as on more occasions it is helpful to have your arches engaged.

    Doing drop backs collapsing your arches can make it easier to push your knees and pelvis forwards so that you can balance the weight of your body as you Lower down on to your hands as opposed to actually "dropping" back.

    When rolling your shins outwards, use the muscles of your feet and ankles to do the rolling. Avoid using the muscles of your hips.

    As you do this foot exercise, you can notice the following:

    • Notice how when you roll your shins out, the center of the inner arch of your foot lifts... well at least that's what happens to mine when I do this exercise!
    • You can also watch the tendons at the top of your foot. Notice how their fan pattern changes as you roll your shin.
    • You can also look at the back of your heel and ankle. Notice how your Achilles tendon becomes straighter, more vertical, when your shins are rolled outwards.

    When your shins are rolled out, you may be helping to stack the two bones of your heel (the calcaneus and talus.) They can then support the weight of your body. (This is as opposed to using muscle power.)

    Since your shins rest on top of these two heel bones, this may also help provide a good foundation for your knees. You can then help keep your knees safe by activating your foot or feet any time your knees are in a potentially unsafe positions-perhaps while squatting or lunging or doing a yoga pose like warrior.

    Rolling your shins out while doing this foot exercise, your pelvis may roll back slightly.

    Rolling your shins in your pelvis may roll forwards.

    Allow this to happen and focus on feeling your shins, feet and ankles while doing this action.

    I find that there is a natural tendency for the outer edge of my foot to press down as I roll my shins out. This may be a result of my inner arch lifting. As a result, I can use the minimum amount of effort to "press down" through the outer edge of my foot as I roll my shins out.

    It is actually more like I am feeling my outer feet press down.

    You can do the same thing. Rather than forcing the outer edge of your foot down, see if you can feel it as it moves closer to the floor. You might try shifting your weight forwards or back a little so that the base of your little toe presses down with just as much pressure as your heel.

    Release as you allow your shins to roll back in.

    An important note: The idea of pressing down through the outer edge of your foot isn't to lift your inner foot (I believe that is called "Eversion.")

    The idea is to press down without lifting your inner foot.

    You may feel a slight "activation" just below the center of the back of your lower leg as you do so.

    Three Additional Actions

    This foot exercise involves other actions that you can add to on to the basic exercise one at a time. Each of these actions helps make flat feet unflat by training the muscles that help to support your foot in a non-flat footed configuration.

    As you roll your shins outwards:

    • Press your weight down through the base of your little toe. (Mentioned above.) Don't "lift" the inner edge of your foot to do this!
    • Lift the center of the arch of your outer foot.
    • Press down through the base of your big toe. Pull the base of your big toe back towards your heel. It will feel like you are gripping the floor with your feet!

    Add these modifications on one at a time, getting comfortable with each action before adding on the next action. Practice first rolling your shins outwards and inwards. Then as you roll outwards press down through the base of your little toe. Relax this action as you roll your shins inwards. Practice a few times and then add on the next action until you are comfortable doing all of the above actions as you roll your shins outwards. You then relax those same actions when rolling your shins inwards.

    Foot Exercise Details

    Here are some details on the above modifications.

    Pressing Your Outer Foot Down (aligning the heel)

    The outer edge of your foot includes the bottom "heel bone" (calcaneus) as well as the bones that lead to the outer two toes. The inner part of the foot consists of the ankle bone (talus) and the bones leading to the inner three toes. The ankle bone sits on top of the heel bone.

    By pressing rotating the shins outwards from the foot (as opposed to from the hip) we may be "stacking" the ankle bone over the heel bone.

    To experience this, try balancing on your heels while rolling your shins out. Keep them rolled out and see if you can feel the bones of your heels being "stacked." Then roll your shins in and see if you can feel your heel collapse.

    When rolling your shins out, see if you can feel when each ankle bone is "stacked" above the heel bones.

    The image I like is that of someone-presumably a lady, pressing down through the heel of one of her 4 inch stilettos. However, instead of pressing down through a high heel, you are pressing down through your own heel.

    Activating Your Outer Arch

    Step three is lifting the center of the outer arch of your feet. This part isn't critical right at the beginning, and to tell the truth I skip this step alot of the time. However, as you become more and more foot aware, you may find that this step helps to create an anchor for a stable pelvis. It may also make for happier feet.

    • The muscles that pull up on the outer arch are attached to the small bone of the lower leg (the fibula-so name because it lies a lot.) This bone doesn't bear weight but it does form part of the anchor for the iliotibial tract, the connective tissue that runs down the side of the thigh.
    • Stabilizing this bone by pulling up on the outer arches of your feet may help in creating side-to-side or lateral stability of the pelvis.
    • At the foot and ankle level, this muscle activation may also help in pulling the bones of the middle foot into their best position relative to teach other. This may help to support the middle area bones of the inner foot.

    To lift through the outer arch of your foot you can simply pull up on the center of the outer edge of your foot, while pressing down through the base of your little toe and heel. Practice activating and relaxing and when you activate you may notice a feeling of muscular contraction along the side of your shin.

    That will be your peroneus longus activating. You may also be activating your peroneus brevis!

    Just as a side note, your gall bladder meridian runs down the outside of your leg. (This meridian may be contained in the "Superficial Lateral Myofascial Anatomy Train" or Superficial Lateral Line as Thomas Myers calls it.)

    The gull bladder organ and its associated meridian are both associated with the wood element.

    You might choose to think of activating your peroneals as an aid in Rooting to the earth. Or you could think of activating the peroneals as an aid in allowing the rest of your body to Spread Out (like the branches of a tree.)

    Pressing Down Through the Base of Your Big Toe

    From an anatomical perspective, rooting through the big toe may help to stabilize the ankle bone (talus). This "activation" can also be important while running or walking. You can press through the this part of the foot to help propel your body forwards or even from side to side.

    Note that if you have trouble rooting or pressing down through the root of your big toe you may be externally rotating your shin too much. Try to slightly relax the external rotation, enough that you can easily press down through the root of your big toe. This action can be especially important when trying to stand or balance on one foot.

    If you still have trouble pressing down through the root of your big toe, you can try to "suck" the front of your shin forwards without actually allowing the shin to move. This action can be used to activate tibialis anterior.

    Muscle Actions

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    So what muscles are you using (or trying to use) when doing this foot exercise? Tibialis Posterior, Peroneus Longus, Peroneus Brevis and Tibialis Posterior.

    Tibialis Posterior

    The primary action rolling the shins out is caused by Tibialis Posterior. You may feel tension in the back of your lower leg while rolling your shins out. That could be your tibialis posterior activating. It attaches to the backs of both the fibula and tibia and passes down the inside of the ankle to attach to the underside of the inner arch of the foot.

    More specifically, it passes behind the medial malleolus (but in front of the sustentaculum tali.) It attaches to the tuberosity of navicular, but also has other "branches". One of these reaches back to attach to the sustentaculum tali, the others to cuboid, the cuneiforms and metatarsals 2, 3 and 4.

    Because of its attachment to the sustentaculum tali, it pulls upwards on the inside surface of the calcaneus (the "heel" bone).

    It also pulls back and upwards on navicular but also pulls forwards on the medial malleolus (the bit of bone that sticks out to the inside of the foot.)

    These forces are what can cause your shins to "roll out." To help this rolling out action the tibialis posterior also pulls inwards, upwards and backwards on the cuneiforms and the middle three metatarsals. You could think of this as "doming" the center of the foot.

    Note that because the tendon of tibialis posterior passes underneath the trochlear process (on the side of the calcaneus) it may also help to pull down on the fibula relative to the tibia. This could be useful for "grounding" the lower end of the iliotibial tract.

    Peroneus Longus

    Peroneus longus attaches to the outside of the fibula (the outermost and smallest of the two lower leg bones.)

    It passes down the outside of the ankle behind the lateral malleolus (the bone that sticks out of the outside of the ankle) and passes under the foot to attach to the inner arch.

    It attaches to the "root" of the big toe.

    More specifically, this muscle passes behind the trochlear process of the calcaneus. (You may be able to feel this protrusion of bone just below and in front of your lateral malleolus.) It passes down the side of the cuboid and then along a canal along the underside of that bone. It attaches to the lateral side of the innermost cuneiform and the base of the innermost metatarsal.

    It can pull up on the outside of the arch (as it passes under cuboid) and can be used to press or "pull" the base of the big toe into the ground. This action seems to be more apparent while standing with weight on the foot (or feet.)

    And so you may find it easier to pull the base of your big toe down if you first focus on pulling up on your outer arch. Or you can try to do the two actions simultaneously. Another option is to press down through the base of the big toe first, then pull up on the outer arch and then roll the shin out.

    Peroneus Brevis

    Peroneus Brevis attaches to the lower part of the fibula underneath the peroneus longus. It passes down the outside of the ankle in front of the trochlear process. (The peroneus longus passes behind this process.)

    Peroneus Brevis then attaches to the base of the outermost metatarsal. It's because of this attachment that it can cause the base of the little toe to press down. And so when activating your outer arch, you can direct your attention to your outer shin to focus on pulling up on the center of the arch while at the same time pressing down through the base of your big toe.

    Tibialis Anterior

    It wasn't until much later that I realized the importance of tibialis anterior in "shaping" the foot. It may be that this muscle acts automatically, except for it doesn't, hence the recommendation to "suck" the shin forwards. This muscle may act in opposition to peroneus brevis and all of the other muscles.

    With the arches lifted and the big toe grounded it can use the base of the big toe as a foundation to pull forwards on the tibia, balancing the actions of the other three muscles to stabilize the ankle.

    It attaches to the lateral side of the tibia and reaches forwards to attach to the medial cuneiform (the innermost cuneiform) and the first metatarsal bone of each foot.

    Learning to Use Minimum Effort

    Ideally you won't have to do these foot exercises all of the time in order to maintain non-flat feet. Instead you simply learn to relax your foot or activate it at will. But prior to that the actually fifth step comes into play once you've learned the elements of "Activating your foot." When you can activate your foot completely the next step is to practice using the minimum effort necessary to activate your foot.

    What does minimum effort mean?

    By activating your foot you are using the muscles of your foot, ankle and lower leg to position the bones of your foot ankle and lower leg. Ideally the positioning is such that the bones in your lower leg support the weight of your body and the forces acting on it. Anything more is wasted effort. In addition, you may also want to use your feet to help you feel where you center of gravity is. For that the more relaxed your feet are, the easier it is to use them to sense where your weight is.

    Actually, in general, the more relaxed you are given what you are trying to do, the easier it is to feel your body.

    It's a trial and error process and the best way to trial and error (well one way to do it anyway) is to move your feet. Practice activating your feet and relaxing them, and see how little effort you can apply in order to shape your feet "ideally."

    Also, as noted above, notice if you are rotating your shins too far. If you go too far you may limit the mobility of the hip joint since you are affecting the rotational position of the thigh via the shin. If you have trouble balancing on one foot in side balance pose or half moon pose it may be because you are rotating your shin outwards too much when doing this foot exercise.

    With your feet "ideally" activated, not only can you use your feet to support your body, you can use them to feel how your body relates to the earth.

    Exercising your feet, learning to feel them and control them, you can then use them to support you in whatever you are trying to do, whether it is a yoga pose, tai ji, or just standing around enjoying a latte, the scenery or conversation with friends.